FINCASTLE, Va. – Animal abusers in Virginia could soon face more jail time for their crime.
Virginia lawmakers voted unanimously in favor of a bill to increase the punishment for injuring a cat or dog by making it a felony with a five-year maximum prison sentence, the same as it would be if the animal dies. The bill, which needs to be signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, was voted on after a dog in Richmond died after it had been set on fire.
The punishment for injuring an animal is a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
Botetourt County Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Jill Deegan has prosecuted animal abuse cases for 15 years. She says a change in Virginia's animal abuse law needed to be made for the animals' sake.
"The animals often times that suffer the most are the ones that live and the ones that die are often killed instantaneously," Deegan said.
Deegan says prosecutors and lawyers have sometimes made the difficult decision to put down an abused animal in order to pursue a more severe charge against the abuser.
"It would be a more serious crime if you went ahead and humanely euthanized the animal versus going through all the steps to make sure it survives, gets rehabilitated, and gets adopted," Deegan said. "You never want to base your decision on 'I'm going to get a more serious charge out of this' but I have to say it's always in the back of your mind."
If the bill becomes law, Deegan says it allows prosecutors to target dangerous animal abusers without making the choice between life and death.
"The people who are doing these horrific things to animals are probably either right now doing the same thing to humans or they're going to progress to humans," Deegan said.